Great Moments: 1965 U.S. Open March 29, 2015 By Michael Trostel, USGA

Gary Player won his only U.S. Open 50 years ago in St. Louis. (USGA Archives)

Gary Player walked up the 71st fairway in the 1962 U.S. Open lamenting a lost opportunity. He had put himself in position to win the championship, but a final round of missed chances left him five strokes out of a playoff with Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. Player confided in the referee walking with his group, “I’m so disappointed not to win the U.S. Open. Had I won, I had planned to give the prize money to charities. But let’s keep that a secret. One day I shall win and I’ll turn back the prize money to good causes.” 

Three years later, he was in a position to do exactly that. Player defeated Australia’s Kel Nagle, 71 to 74, in an 18-hole playoff at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis to win the 1965 U.S. Open. During Sunday’s final round, Player nearly gave away the championship by squandering a three-stroke lead. After Monday’s playoff win, however, Player gave away everything but the title, donating all his winnings to charity, saying, “I am a foreigner here. The American people have treated me so well I wanted to give something back.” 

American-born golfers had dominated the U.S. Open through the middle decades of the 20th century. Homebred players won every U.S. Open between 1928 and 1964 – a length of time that spanned nearly two generations. With players such as Palmer, Nicklaus and Billy Casper dominating the game’s landscape in the early 1960s, it seemed a foregone conclusion that an American would once again claim the title in 1965. 

While Palmer and Nicklaus battled for national championships, money titles and America’s affections in the 1960s, South Africa’s Gary Player took the international game by storm. It has been said that no one in history logged more miles playing golf than Player, who traveled more than 15 million miles while winning titles on six continents. 

Player was born in Johannesburg, the youngest of three children. His mother died of cancer when he was just eight and his father was often away from home, working in the gold mines. He compensated for his slight build (5-foot-7 and 150 pounds) with a strict diet and fitness regimen that complemented his natural athleticism and grace. He turned professional at age 17 and in 1959 won the British Open as a 23-year-old, becoming the youngest champion to that point in history. Player went on to win the 1961 Masters and 1962 PGA Championship, along with dozens of other tournaments across the globe in the early 1960s. He came into the 1965 U.S. Open as one of the game’s leading players. 

Breaking from the custom of holding U.S. Opens at historic venues, the USGA awarded the 1965 championship to a course that was just five years old. Built on rolling Missouri farmland just west of St. Louis, Bellerive was designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. and featured unusually large and subtly contoured greens. At 7,191 yards, it also established a record as the longest course to host the championship. 

For the first time in history, the U.S. Open was played over four days. This new format not only provided increased television revenue and exposure, but it also solved the challenge of having the 60-plus players who had made the cut complete 36 holes on Saturday. 

Despite Bellerive’s length, long hitters seemed to gain little advantage in the opening round. In fact, Nagle and Deane Beman, two of the shortest hitters in the field, were two of just three competitors to break par on Thursday. Nagle, who shot 68, played fairway woods into four of the par 4s and claimed he would have had a fifth if he had not hit his drive into the rough and been forced to lay up. Beman, the game’s leading amateur, used 13 fairway woods for his approach shots but still managed a 1-under 69. Player shot a 70, telling the media after the round that he couldn’t “remember ever making finer contact with the ball.” Three missed putts from inside 8 feet cost him what could have been a spectacular round. 

Player matched his score in the second round to take a one-stroke lead over Nagle and Mason Rudolph. Beman, with rounds of 69-73 for 142, was alone in fourth. Player made one birdie (an 18-footer at the ninth), one bogey and 16 pars in a consistent, if unspectacular, round. The biggest story on day two, however, was the big names that were absent from the leader board. Palmer – who had a victory, two runner-up finishes and a tie for fifth in his previous five U.S. Opens – shot 76-76 for 152 and missed the cut. Likewise, the defending champion, Ken Venturi, was going home after rounds of 81-79. Nicklaus rebounded from an opening 78 with a 72 to make the cut on the number, but thereafter was never in contention. He got up and down just once in 13 attempts on Thursday and Friday. For the first time in seven years, Palmer and Nicklaus would both finish outside the top five at the U.S. Open. 

Many television viewers and network executives were sorely disappointed that the game’s two biggest names were out of contention. Eighteen years earlier, in 1947, the U.S. Open, played at St. Louis Country Club, was televised live for the first time. A local television station, KSD-TV, used a single camera placed on top of a station truck parked behind the 18th green to transmit images to the station via telephone wires. In 1965, more than a dozen cameras and a crew of 75 helped to broadcast the final rounds at Bellerive, located a mere seven miles from St. Louis C.C. The 1965 broadcast marked the first time that the U.S. Open was televised in color, which was even more noticeable as two club officials ordered the 17th and 18th greens to be sprayed emerald green to make sure the course looked its best for the cameras. 

Another surprise development from the first two rounds was the difficulty of the par-3 sixth hole. It played only 195 yards but was guarded by three bunkers and a small pond at the front right of the green. On Thursday and Friday, the hole yielded only 15 birdies against 14 triple bogeys or worse, including two 8s and a 9 by Canadian pro Bob Panasiuk, who hit two balls in the water and putted another into the pond. By the end of Sunday, the hole played at 247 strokes over par for the week – the most difficult hole to that point in U.S. Open history. 

Both Player and Nagle avoided trouble at the treacherous sixth throughout the championship and, through 54 holes, Player led the Australian by two strokes. By the time the competitors made the turn on Sunday, Player had pushed his edge to three. As he waited to hit his approach shot on the 10th hole, Nagle, playing in the group in front of him, drained a 15-foot birdie putt. Slightly rattled, Player missed the green for his first bogey of the day. The two-shot swing trimmed the lead to a single stroke. On the 12th, Nagle struck again. This time it was a 40-foot curler that found the hole. “It was a monster of a putt,” said Player to the media after the round. “I really felt that one in my guts.” This time, however, Player responded, matching Nagle’s heroics with a 6-iron approach to 15 feet and a birdie of his own. 

Player again seemed in control of the championship when Nagle double-bogeyed the 15th. His lead was once again three strokes, and he had not made a bogey over the final three holes through the first three rounds of the championship. But within 15 minutes, everything changed. Player’s tee shot on the 218-yard 16th hole found the greenside bunker. He was able to blast to 15 feet but three-putted for double bogey. Just minutes later, Nagle converted a 4-foot birdie putt at the par-5 17th to pull even. Nagle parred the 18th, and Player, with the memory of his three-putt at 16 still fresh in his mind, lagged his 28-foot birdie attempt to within inches for a par that set up Monday’s 18-hole playoff. 

Nagle was not well-known in the United States, as he played most of his golf on the Australasian Tour. In fact, several newspapers referred to him as Ken Nagle at various times throughout the championship. Though at 44 years old he was vying to become the oldest U.S. Open champion, Nagle was not the underdog he seemed. He had missed the cut in his two previous U.S. Open appearances but had an impressive record in the British Open, finishing in the top five in six out of seven championships from 1960 to 1966 – including a win in 1960 that denied Arnold Palmer a shot at the Grand Slam.

The playoff, however, was never close. Nagle was wild off the tee and missed four putts of less than 6 feet on the first nine. On the fifth, Nagle hooked his drive off a female spectator’s forehead, then had his clubface turned by thick rough and struck another spectator in the leg with his second shot. He settled for a double-bogey 6. Player, meanwhile, was in total control. Wearing the same black shirt he had worn the first four rounds and playing his patented draw, Player birdied three of the first eight holes and led by five strokes at the turn. Nagle parred in from the 11th hole, but the damage had been done. Player became the first foreign-born golfer since Scotland’s Tommy Armour in 1927 to win the U.S. Open.

USGA Executive Director Joe Dey was effusive in his praise for Player, writing, “A conspicuous quality of the new U.S. Open champion is his respect for others, for golf and for himself. He is disarmingly sincere … and sometimes he seems too good to be true. Yet he is a strong character of firm convictions, which he articulates well.” 

True to his promise three years earlier, Player donated his winnings to charity following his victory. He gave $5,000 to cancer research in honor of his mother and returned $20,000 to the USGA to help develop junior golf. 

In total, Player won more than 160 tournaments worldwide, including three British Opens, three Masters and two PGA Championships. He is one of just five players to win all four of golf ’s major championships. Player’s international stature coincided with the expansion of professional sports on a worldwide level. International players joined the National Hockey League, the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball in significant numbers, improving the quality of competition and bringing new styles of play. 

Golf also benefited from an influx of foreign players who challenged American golfers to improve their games. Building on Player’s accomplishments, Spain’s Seve Ballesteros won five major championships and more than 90 tournaments worldwide starting in the mid-1970s, electrifying fans with his dazzling shotmaking skills and flair for the dramatic. In the 1980s and early 1990s, England’s Nick Faldo, Germany’s Bernhard Langer and Australia’s Greg Norman each held the number-one spot in the Official World Golf Ranking and consistently challenged for major championship titles. Perhaps the man whom Player impacted most was fellow South African Ernie Els, who became just the fourth foreign-born U.S. Open champion since the Great Depression when he won in 1994; Els added a second title in 1997. 

Player was golf’s first truly international champion. He not only helped to raise awareness of the game worldwide through his exceptional play, but he built the groundwork for future generations to enjoy the game by advocating physical fitness and charitable endeavors.

This story is excerpted from a recently released book by the USGA entitled "Great Moments of the U.S. Open" (Firefly Books). For more information and to order the book, click here.